Dragon-slaying archangels: Totally Epic Tuesday

Today my darling boyfriend has holed himself up in his room with goodies and some sort of special edition Dragon Age II game which he pre-ordered ages ago and which was finally released. This got me thinking about dragons. Which got me thinking about dragon-slaying and its popularity of old.What can be gleaned from dragon folklore is the early struggle between paganism, symbolized as a dragon, and Christianity.

In fact, there were some notable early Christian saints who were well-known dragon slayers. St. Sampson of Cornwall led a dragon from a moorland cave to its death over rugged sea cliffs. St. Serf destroyed a dragon living in Dragon Hole in Perthshire in the 6th century. Others took a gentler approach, like St. Petroc who whispered a prayer in the ear of a Cornish dragon, after which it swam out to sea to new lands. St. Carantoc led one away from it’s swamp to the “wild places” where few ventured. In Derbyshire a priest banished a dragon with such force that its footprints were entrenched into solid rock… the dragon retired to the mines where his warm breath warms some of the local springs.

Of course these are all myths, but the association of early saints of Christianity with dragons is due to the fact that the devil is analogous with a dragon in the bible.

I have no idea if there is actually any dragon slaying going on in Dragon Age II, but in honour of big bug and his game, and even more because it is freaking awesome… I present the most famous dragon-slayer of all time. The leader of God’s Heavenly army and pretty much the most powerful warrior in existence ever, and a true “spiritual hero of freedom.”

The Archangel Michael defeating the Dragon!

St. Michael Trampling the Dragon by Raphael

In the book of Daniel, Michael appears as “one of the chief princes” and as a “great prince who stands up for the children of your [Daniel’s] people”. Though a prince among angels, Michael is the picture of humility, and his name (mi-who, ke-as or like, El-deity) means “Who is like God?” (answer: no one), thus in his entirety Michael is a testament to the greatness of God. He came to the aid of another great archangel, Gabriel, to defeat the prince of Persia (this is evidently a fallen angel working under the direction of Satan who operates as the “god of this world” according to 2 Corinthians 4:4) in Daniel. Gabriel is stuck in battle for 21 days, being prevented from bringing Daniel a message. Michael comes to the rescue and relieves him so that he might bring the interpretation of the vision to Daniel.

Michael Binding Satan by William Blake

In William Blake’s rendition Michael looks quite human (no wings or armor, not even a halo) but the adversary is an incredible dragon with a human head.

Michael is also considered in many Christian circles as the patron saint of the warrior and of chivalry. According to wikipedia: “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and certain New Age Christian denominations refer to Michael as the Christ Michael, or Christ before he became man. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Michael is the heavenly form of Adam from the Book of Genesis.”

St. Michael and the Dragon by Antonio del Pollaiuolo

In the book of Enoch, which is not a book of the Christian bible but is mentioned in the book of Jude, Michael along with archangels Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel and Suriel heard the cries of men under the chaos and destruction of the fallen angels and their offspring the nephilim upon the earth. It is Michael who beseeches God to call Enoch to prophethood, and teaches Enoch the “mysteries of clemency and justice”. In the book of Enoch he is called patient and merciful. He comforts Enoch after a particularly frightening vision, explaining that only those who turn from God should fear. Enoch 70:11-16 shows that Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Phanuel always ‘escort’ God the Father, whenever he leaves his throne.

In Jewish lore Michael is sometimes also considered the patron of Adam, supposedly watcher over the first human family (remaining vigilant in his job even after the expulsion from the garden), and the first angel to bow down before humanity. In the apocryphal Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, Michael taught Adam how to farm.

St. Michael defeating the Dragon by Master of Saint Verdiana

The Book of Revelation describes a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon (that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray). The dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down to the earth, and his angels with him.”

In Catholic teachings, Saint Michael will also triumph at the end times when he defeats Antichrist. The Book of Daniel (12:1) states: “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise.”

St. Michael and the Dragon by Raphael

It seems the devil and Michael are constantly coming up against one another throughout history. In the book of Jude, 1:9 Michael and the devil are contending for the body of Moses:

But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

Beautiful blue-winged depiction of the Angel Michael

One thing I love is that many Michael paintings have extremely detailed armor and weaponry. Though they all more or less depict the same scenario, Michael standing triumphantly over the serpent, ala the famous statue of Saint Michael atop the fountain in the Place Saint-Michel in Paris.

I think the fascination only grows with each interpretation. Often he pierces the dragon with a lance. It is not unusual for him to be carrying a sword or even a set of scales for which to weight the souls of the departed (to show that he takes part in the judgement). This is also depicted by Michaelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michael, obviously, is a favorite angelic subject in art, second in popularity only to Gabriel. His wings are generally conspicuous and very grand. “As with all angels’ iconography, his wings represent swiftness, his sword means authority or power, and his white raiment stands for his enlightenment”. In the Renaissance period, he is shown as young, strong, and handsome, and is most often depicted as a proud, handsome angel in white or magnificent armor or a splendid coat of mail and equipped with sword, shield and spear.

Saint Michael by Reni Guido (1600-1640)

In England and other countries, Michaelmas Day is a day for settling rents and accounts. It was once celebrated with remarkable hospitality. September 29th was the feast of Saint Michael in the Middle ages this was a holy day of obligation. On Michaelmas Day families would dress a goose for the feast, and often baked a cake, called St. Michael’s bannock. The Greek Orthodox honor the archangels on November 8th instead.

St. Michael Defeats the Devil by Eugene Delacroix

Michael has 4 main roles or offices within the Roman Catholic church.

  1. He is the “angel of death” who carries the souls of the deceased to heaven and weighs them in his perfectly balanced scales.
  2. He descends at the hour of a persons death and gives each one the chance to redeem themselves before passing. This angers the devil and his minions.
  3. He is the patron of the people of Israel in the Old Testament and the guardian of the Church (hence honoured by military orders and knights of the Middle Ages).
  4. Besides Jesus himself, He is the greatest enemy of Satan and his fallen angels.

St. Michael by Olga Christine

As we can see in this image, Michael is often shown atop mountaintops. Many famous shrines to him survive on those places, often replacing shrines of pre-Christian gods concerned with weather, like the German pagan god Wotan (hence the numerous mountain chapels of St. Michael all over Germany).

Saint Michael in combat with the dragon by Jean Fouquet

Here the dragon is depicted especially reptilian, rather than as the fallen angel Lucifer. Michael raises his sword on the monster with seven heads in front of a mountainous and fantastic landscape. Below the caves of the hell are open where we see Satan seated, and the torturing of souls. On the right, one sees in the middle of the flames, the dragon from now on bound by the archangel.

St. Michael Fighting the Dragon (engraving) by Durer Albrecht

Although always looking victorious in these historical works of art, Michael also tends to look extremely androgynous and at times terribly effeminate. So in order to rectify this, I am including some contemporary non-historical Michael artwork that I like because they are badass.

Heaven's Rebellion by Elandain

Saint Michael by John "Pops" Arthur Martin

Michael Victorious by Elandain

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